Music Bands and Social Media, an Interview with Shourov Bhattacharya
Interviewer: Tim Martin, January 2014. Episode #8 from the NET:101 podcast.
TIM: Welcome. With me today I have Shourov Bhattacharya, who is the founder of Pongolabs. You’re an engineer – that’s what you do for a living, day job – but you also are a singer and songwriter for The Bombay Royale. Welcome.
SHOUROV: Lovely to be here, Tim.
TIM: I’ve always considered you as being a renaissance kind of guy, interested in so many different things. You and I have had some pretty crazy discussions over the years. But today, within the context of this podcast at least, social media. What I’m really interested in is how the band manages social, what you’ve done or might be doing.
But before we go down there into that space, just give us some background about yourself and the band.
SHOUROV: Sure. As you said, I’m an engineer. I’ve got two careers. I’m a bit of a nerd during the day, but recently I’ve, last 2 or 3 years, have seen a music career which is parallel to that in The Bombay Royale. The Bombay Royale is Melbourne-based. There’s about 10 of us, and we play music inspired by vintage Bollywood music, so old Indian films from the ’60 and ’70s, which had some fantastic music and soundtracks.
We play live and we’re inspired by that. We’ve written a lot of music. We put out an album in 2012, which is called “You Me Bullets Love” and did quite well around the world. Off the back of that, we toured Europe last year – this year, actually – and now we’re going to be going to America in January and performing in New York.
So things are going well for the band, and it’s grown really quite fast. It’s a bit of a niche project. It’s certainly different. It’s sort of in its own genre, I guess. Which is challenging in some ways, because it’s not as easy to explain to someone as, for example, if you just had a jazz band or something like that. But it does mean that you’re also finding a niche that isn’t really populated by other bands. It’s worked well for us.
TIM: There’s always been 10 members in the band?
SHOUROV: There’s 10 or 11. We sort of vary. We’ve got a horn section with three or four people, so it can vary a little bit. Yeah, it’s a core of 10 people who are always playing.
TIM: It sounds like a production in its own right, organizing 10 different people to be at the same place at the same time.
SHOUROV: It’s a real challenge logistically, but luckily we’ve got a really good bunch of people, so we haven’t had the Beatles-style breakup yet.
TIM: No Yokos in the wings?
SHOUROV: No, it’s been good. We actually get along. Which is, in the music world, a little bit rare.
TIM: Excellent. Okay, now social. You and I have had a few discussions over the last year or so in terms of what you’re doing within social media. Can you give me some background as to that experience? Where are you now? Do you have a social media footprint around The Bombay Royale?
SHOUROV: We do. We’ve got about 5,000 fans on Facebook, so that’s our primary presence. We do have a Twitter account, which at times has been very active. Not right now. And we’ve made brief forays into some more specialized platforms such as ReverbNation and we’ve put our music onto Bandcamp and so on.
I think right from the beginning, there’s really not been much of a strategy. Bands are very good at making music, but notoriously disorganized when it comes to everything else, if you like. So it’s never been made a priority, but the Facebook page has certainly been a really good way to build a community around the band. And we have used it quite a lot over the last 2 or 3 years.
TIM: I want to come back to Facebook in a second. Am I right in thinking there’s a whole substrata of social media or online platforms specifically for the music space? The likes of which probably most people have never heard of before.
SHOUROV: There is, yeah. I’m not an expert on all these platforms. Actually, some of the names of them escape me right now, but I know there’s a real plethora of them out there. Some of them are more successful than others.
I’m skeptical about them in a way. I think that none of them perhaps have that critical mass that you really need. People just aren’t on those platforms enough. Something like, for example, ReverbNation, which is one that we get emails from now and then saying “You’ve had a couple of people come and check out your music on this platform.”
They’re very hard to engage through, because it’s yet another platform to manage. Your fans are essentially getting on with their daily lives and using one or two of the major social media platforms, and that’s where you’ll find them. So then to go to a more niche or specialized platform for the music business, you’re only reaching people in the music business.
TIM: Yeah. Is MySpace on the radar? It started off for bands and music in the early days and then sort of fell into a hole. Has it gone back to its roots? Is that important at all?
SHOUROV: Yeah, actually I forgot to talk about MySpace. We started with a MySpace page. That was in about 2010, late 2010. It was still at that point, I think, seen as the default option for a band. The Facebook pages hadn’t become as popular for bands back then. So we started with a MySpace page.
The MySpace comments section was completely filled with spam. We never got a single genuine fan comment on the MySpace page. That’s one thing I noticed straightaway. We just did it because it was the thing to do. All musicians made MySpace pages.
But very quickly, within a year or two, that rising sense of disgust with MySpace – because it also looked very, very bad at that point. I think that everyone got disgusted with it, and then Facebook made it much easier for people to create pages at that point, and everyone migrated to Facebook, and so did we. We shut down our MySpace page.
TIM: What about your ability to put tracks up, though? MySpace was great for that, that you could put up samples or complete tracks or albums.
SHOUROV: There are many other platforms which do that better, I think, and allow you to put up a track, then embed that into your website and integrate it into the experience that you have on your website. That’s the way we went, and that’s the way most bands go now.
Rather than using MySpace as a platform to distribute their music, they essentially take whatever other provider is out there and try and put it into their website. Because it’s all about trying to get people to come to your home page rather than go to some generic-looking place to get your music. Or at least, that’s the strategy we took. We always message our fans and want to get them engaged and then come to our website. I don’t know, for right or wrong, that’s the kind of philosophy we’ve had.
TIM: Would I be thinking that’s so you can let them know where you’re playing? Is the money play to actually get them to the venue, to the concert? You give the music away for free; you’re not trying to monetize that, are you? Or do you sell…
SHOUROV: There’s very little money in selling music, and that’s as a general rule now. So yes, it’s all about trying to get them to come to concerts, get them in the door, and then you can engage with them in the live performance. Which is something that can’t be copied and replicated. It is your USP as a band.
TIM: See, for most of us getting into social media, it’s about trying to build up community and engagement and have that brand carry through the different communities. But social is a great set of publishing platforms, and if you’ve got readymade content in the form of audio and music, then social can be just another way to distribute that content that you’ve got.
SHOUROV: Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly how we used it, for example, when we created a video clip. Our first video clip for our first album was something that we really pushed out through all the social media platforms, and it did get a lot of attention because of the social push.
I think without that, it would’ve been much harder to for example get some DJ in Japan to notice our music. He probably wouldn’t have just stumbled across it. But those social networks, with a couple of degrees of separation, it was actually getting out to those sort of people globally and building a global audience. Within a niche. So that was a great thing for us.
TIM: It’s almost like putting a whole set of demo tracks out there for people to sample, to make a decision as to whether they’re going to go to the venue or the concert or the music theater or whatever it may be.
SHOUROV: That’s exactly how it works. The process of getting booked in an overseas musical festival, for example, it often gets started by someone discovering your music through a share on say Facebook, or someone on Twitter getting a tweet about your video clip. It often starts like that, and then the news will spread to the right person who’s actually booking for a festival, and then he’ll go and search you on the web, find your videos on YouTube, and get in contact with you. That’s typically been the progression. So it often starts with a share from social media.
TIM: Does The Bombay Royale have their own website?
SHOUROV: Yes, of course. We have thebombayroyale.com. We’ve got a website, and our videos are on there and so on, and we announce our tour dates.
TIM: In terms of pushing people in a certain direction to go to that next level and maybe book you, or at least have a conversation around booking, that website is a great place to drive them to?
SHOUROV: Yes, that’s right. That’s the centerpiece of the strategy as such.
TIM: I do know a lot of artists out there and bands that don’t have a website. They’re completely reliant on their MySpace page or their Facebook page to be that de facto web presence for them. Any dangers there?
SHOUROV: I think it doesn’t allow you to really craft your identity online to the same extent. You’ll get a fairly generic-looking page on either of those platforms. For example, when we published our first video clip and it was playing on TV and our album was out there and there was a lot of buzz around the band at that point, we converted the front page of our website essentially to be the video itself. So you landed on the video and you’d play the video, and that was the introduction to the band.
Because at that point, that was the #1 thing that we wanted people to see. So we were able to really customize our identity online, and we got a lot of hits, people coming and searching us. They all hit the video, and they all watched the video. They didn’t get the website. That’s the sort of stuff you can’t do if you don’t have your own website.
I guess it’s just that level of control over if you’re thinking in terms of branding for a band, people typically discover you when they come to your website. There’s all the people who already love you, and they really just want to know when you’re playing next or what might be happening, are you releasing a new single or something.
But then there’s all these people that you want to introduce yourself to online. That’s where I think having your own website means that you can really do that properly, whereas having a Facebook page is good and it does the job, but I don’t think it’s good enough alone. That’s my opinion.
TIM: No, it’d be mine too. I think it’s dangerous to put 100% of your stock on a third party platform.
SHOUROV: That’s another consideration.
TIM: Anything could happen.
SHOUROV: Because we all know they change their policies and so on, and suddenly you’re not reaching the people that you used to or whatever. That’s happened recently.
TIM: For sure. Do you guys run an email database so I can sign up and get a notification of where and when you’re playing?
SHOUROV: Yeah, we do have an email list. I think we have maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people on there. We don’t send many, but when we have sent them, we’ve found them to be really effective. We get really good response rates.
I think that in the context of a band, the people who join your email list really do love you. They’re kind of the hardcore fans. They’re the guys who will promote you within their own city or country, and you can really leverage that.
For example, when we went and toured the UK, we did an email campaign before the tour and got a lot f engagement from the guys who got the emails. And they were actually helping to promote us, essentially, over there. We got a lot of people coming to our concerts through that network of people. So the email thing for us as a band has probably been the best way to get to our fans.
TIM: I’d go so far as to say for many organizations out there, regardless of what space they’re in, to build up a strong email database is essential. You’re probably got a little more ownership or control over that relationship. You know pretty much when you send an email out that the majority of people are going to get it, and if they’re interested in it, they’re going to open it.
TIM: You mentioned video before; they’re tracks you put up in video format on YouTube?
TIM: That’s a fairly common way these days for people to engage with musicians or bands, is by looking at their YouTube clips?
SHOUROV: Oh yeah, for sure.
TIM: You’ve got a well decked out YouTube channel?
SHOUROV: It’s okay. It’s not that great. Like many things, it hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Creating good video, as you would know, is difficult to do, and time-consuming. It needs resources. In our case, we’ve done really good professionally produced video clip, which has done wonders for the band. It would’ve been great to have had two or three instead, but they take budget, they take time.
But if you don’t have at least one video clip out there, I think you really just can’t get taken seriously and you can’t really start to engage a proper community of fans. Unfortunately, the video is a prerequisite for bands nowadays to get out there.
That video going out there, that first video for “You Me Bullets Love,” took us to the next level. It got us the critical mass of people, the fan base that we needed to then go to the next level and not just be a local band playing local venues, and start doing the national stuff and the international stuff.
TIM: I read an article the other day that was talking about the whole subgenre of YouTube musical clips, which are essentially text on images, and the text being the lyrics. So there’s a whole group of people that are very happy to engage with a video. They don’t necessarily need to see the moving pictures, but they just happen to be accessing the music through a video channel.
SHOUROV: Yeah, we’ve got that happening too. We don’t put lyrics. I don’t know, that somehow just looks really tacky. (laughs) But you can find, off our album, we released all our tracks apart from a couple on YouTube. So you can listen to them for free, and the picture is just the cover of our album, essentially.
TIM: So your website has pages – you’ve got embed options around the musical track in its pure form, you’ve got embed from YouTube, and you’re sort of just mashing it up that way?
SHOUROV: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t remember the platform we use for it. It’s not Bandcamp. I think it’s another one. It’s a really great little widget which has all our tracks. People can leave comments; they can even comment on certain parts of the track, like “Oh, this bit’s awesome” or whatever. And then there’s our main video, which is basically a YouTube embed of our video clip.
Then if for example we have something special going on which has got a bit of video footage, like we performed on The Andrew Marr Show, which is on the BBC, which went out to this huge viewership – so we took a clip of that and we’ll put that on our front page, which is essentially just cycling over like a bit of a blog. Just whatever’s coming up next and promoting the next big event.
And then the very important thing for bands is to have a very simple and prominent list of dates, because a lot of people just really want to know “When can I see you guys?”
TIM: And the venues or the festivals you’ll be playing at, the ticket sales, are obviously taken care of by the organizers. Do you ever sell tickets directly for any of your gigs?
SHOUROV: No, typically that’s taken care of by someone else. But if you put on your own show, then yes, and then you have to put in a lot of effort. That’s when you really need to ramp up your efforts online and in social media. We did a show, for example, in London where we paid for everything. We put on the show, we hired the venue, and it was The Bombay Royale Show. There wasn’t any other acts on the bill or anything; it was all about us.
So that’s where you really have to make an effort, and that’s where I think it would pay off for a band to have a specialist in social media. Unfortunately, no band can afford that, or hardly any bands I know can actually afford that. But I’ve talked to our band manager and the management company we work with a couple of times saying “Can we get an intern or even just a kid out of high school to actually come in and do this for a few hours a week?” because it needs that constant attention to really be effective.
Because when you do do it, and when you do have those periods where you ramp up your social media, you get really good returns. You get a lot of people sharing your music and you get a lot of new fans who then stick with you, or a certain percentage stick with you. So you get this long-term return by really spending a lot of time on your social media. But there’s just not enough resources and time, usually, to do that on a day-by-day basis.
TIM: How does that flow through – if you’ve got a Facebook page, if you’ve got a presence on Facebook and on Twitter, and you just let it go in terms of you’re not feeding it for 6 months? Do you get any sense that the community starts to wither, or does it just go into suspended animation?
SHOUROV: I think it goes into hibernation. Maybe it’s a little easier – I mean, as long as you’re performing still, the main thing here is to get out there and perform. I think the live performance aspect for a band is what actually gets you fans. We always say, if there are 1,000 people watching us and if 10% of them get converted into hardcore fans, you’ve done very, very well. Because over time, that cumulatively starts to build you a really big, sustainable fan base.
Having said that, though, what the social media allows us to do is to – it’s the best way, especially Facebook, is a really good way to keep those fans happy and keep their interest in the band in a highly competitive landscape. And yes, if you don’t feed it, 6 months of not feeding it, people will drift away. They do tend to still stay as fans of your page; people rarely sign off and unlike you. But again, when you do feed it, you get the returns, and when you don’t, people stop caring. You do notice that.
TIM: Is that a frustrating process? I mean, you know the power of it, you know that it does deliver a return; it’s just physically, there aren’t enough hours in the day to pull it off.
SHOUROV: Absolutely, yeah. It takes a lot longer than you think, as you know. The output might just be one or two updates a day, but to think through something that’s really going to engage people and to have content with it – because as with any business, I suppose, you’ve got to have good content to go and engage your fans or whoever it is, rather than just putting out random updates. That’s been tried by us as well at certain times, and it just doesn’t work.
For us, for example, we’ll want to do something like maybe we’ll share other people’s music. You’ve also got to be I guess a bit altruistic about that. I think that’s another part of it. If it’s all about you and if it’s just all about how awesome – “We’re great, listen to our music. We’re wonderful” – that also doesn’t work.
That’s something that we’ve learned by trial and error. You’ve got to promote other bands. You’ve got to promote maybe a track that you heard that you love from wherever, from 50 years ago, from the other side of the world, whatever. But it really is about helping other people to get their music out there as well. I do believe that’s part of it.
TIM: I believe that’s the key to social for most orgnaiztaions out there, is to want to invest something into the pot before they want to draw from it. That makes sense.
The personality that you project through social – now, there’s 10 people. You’ve got a personality, as Shourov. Is there a manufactured way that you would want to be perceived or to speak through social?
SHOUROV: Yes, yes. There is, definitely. Especially with us. We’ve got a strong identity as a band. We’re not conventional. Our tone is tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time we’re very committed to creating quality music. We’re not just a novelty thing. We’ve got this kind of vintage angle as well. We’ve got also crazy characters on stage, like if you see the band visually, each one of us has a different character. It’s kind of like this fantasy world, this crazy old movie where anything can happen.
So you can’t have a serious tone on your social media. It’s got to have the same sort of vibe to it. I can do it, and there’s a couple other guys in the band who can pull it off. The rest of the guys actually can’t do it. We’ve had times when someone else has been doing social media, and the tone has been not quite right, and it’s actually really noticed by our fans. You can see those posts don’t get attention, because people expect something out of you and you’re not delivering it.
If it doesn’t match the identity of your social identity that you’ve constructed, we notice big drop-offs in engagement. So that’s definitely a big, big part of it. And everything that you do has to fit into that model and has to be messaged that way.
TIM: That could be a danger of getting an intern onboard, that he or she, as enthusiastic as they are and as helpful as they want to be, don’t understand the personality of the band.
SHOUROV: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve had people do our social media on and off, other people come in, and they’ve put out some stuff which was…
TIM: Wrong. (laughs)
SHOUROV: Pretty bad. We’re like this fun party band, and they put out these really serious-sounding, sort of corporate updates, which people didn’t like at all. Because they want to escape from that when they’re coming to listen to our music. They’re not wanting to get some sort of memo from central office.
TIM: No, certainly not. So you’re on Facebook, you’re on Twitter. YouTube is obvious. Any other platforms that you’ve considered jumping onto?
SHOUROV: We did consider going back to MySpace, for example, but I don’t see a compelling reason to do that. Even Twitter has fallen off. I guess the thing with Twitter was it seemed to require this constant attention which we can’t give it. It was a great way to reach new people, though. We tend to use Twitter a lot before we go overseas; it allows us to talk to people who otherwise we can’t talk to.
For example, there might be a famous DJ how we think is into our music, but we’re not quite sure. We can contact that person on Twitter and actually have a chat with them, and potentially even get a gig out of it. That’s not something you can do on Facebook. You can’t reach those people.
So Twitter’s got its place. It’s used by us in bursts. If you look through our Twitter account, we’ll have periods of high activity and then literally nothing, which probably isn’t a good thing, but I think because we’re using it in this way to reach out to new people only, whereas Facebook is used to engage with our existing fans, we don’t have any other platforms going on. I think that’s been enough for us.
TIM: Yeah. In my space, LinkedIn is big because that’s the community that I move through, that professional community. Would there be any calling at all for somebody in a band to have an individual profile or a company page, so to speak, around the band?
SHOUROV: Maybe for the manager. I think the band manager should be on there and engaging with other professionals in the music industry. I mean, underneath the band and the actual performers and the songwriters and the artists, there’s this huge industry which is people – essentially music industry professionals operate just like any other business, and the band and their music is just a commodity.
That world I’m sure is already very much on LinkedIn. The band and the performers, the people in the band, occupy a very different culture and are almost never on LinkedIn. And maybe it’s a good thing that they’re not on LinkedIn.
One of the things about being in a band you realize is that it’s essential to have a really good manager, and the manager can do a lot of things that the band typically is very bad at. And pretty much that’s anything to do with the business. (laughs) You get the odd person who can straddle that, but if you’re a good artist, you’re often not good at the business side and your motivations are different. I think putting band members on the LinkedIn for us, for example, would be a bad idea.
TIM: Could be dangerous, yeah. Do you sell merchandise at all, posters or t-shirts or anything like that?
SHOUROV: Yeah, we do. We sell them online and we sell them on gigs, and we’ve got a shop set up, online shop set up.
TIM: Okay, so what are you using for the gateway?
SHOUROV: I can’t remember what it is, but it was really simple. I think it was big something. Sorry, I can’t remember the name, Tim. But I do remember setting it up; it only took about 20 minutes. It was a cloud software.
TIM: So probably a lot easier than most people think in terms of setting up online.
SHOUROV: It was really easy. Didn’t need any technical knowledge. You upload a few images and hook up your payment gateway. Yeah, I think myself and someone from our management company did it in half a day. It’s good. Looks good and it works well.
TIM: Great. I know you can sell merchandise through Facebook. Is that something you’ve ever experimented with?
SHOUROV: Haven’t tried that, no. Haven’t tried that actually. Our merchandise is not a huge part of what we do. Some bands really crank that up, and I’m sure they put more effort into it. For us, it’s a bit of a side thing. But it can be a nice earner in this business if you really put your mind to it.
TIM: I can imagine. Look, Shourov, fantastic. Great insights. Not just for people in the music space. I think there’s a tendency for a lot of us to move within our own circles and believe that we’re seeing 100% of what’s out there, but of course, there are all these different industries that are operating in their own ways on different platforms, and as I said before, some of which we’ve never even heard of because that’s just not on our radar for the industry we’re in.
Let people know where they can find you, if they want to come and listen to a gig or go and check out the website.
SHOUROV: Yeah, sure. Our website is thebombayroyale.com. You just search “The Bombay Royale,” search us on Facebook. Look up our music. If you’re from Melbourne, come and see us. If you’re anywhere in Australia, we’re probably touring at some point. If you’re in New York by any chance, then come and see us on the 12th of January at Webster Hall. Otherwise, we’ll have to get to your part of the world sometime.
It’s been a great ride. It’s a lot of fun. I suppose one thing I wanted to mention – you were saying how every industry does its own thing. I do spend another half of my life in a different world, in the world of technology and business and startups.
One of the things I learnt from being in the band, I guess, is that we can all afford to be a little bit more creative and kooky with our communication. The way I communicate with the band is obviously very different to how I’d speak with my clients for my technology business, but you can bring some of that across. You can afford to be a little bit out of the ordinary, I suppose. So one thing I’ve learned to do is to occasionally have those updates in the business world which are a little bit out of left field, the way The Bombay Royale is.
And that actually works quite well. You can engage people by being a little bit different. I think sometimes we’re afraid of that, because everything’s so serious and everyone’s posting really serious stuff on LinkedIn all the time – but it doesn’t have to be so serious. Everyone likes to have a laugh, everyone loves music, everyone loves to encounter something new. We need to bring a little bit of that craziness into the business world as well.
TIM: I just agree so much. It’s not an easy thing to do, because I think the default position for many of us is to be serious. But social is all about personality and getting something that you wouldn’t normally get in a normal business context. If you go to my website, you’ll see me holding a fish. I’ve got no idea why I’m holding a fish, but I am, and I’m happy that it’s out there.
SHOUROV: Yeah, your stuff – I think you’re good at that, Tim. I get some kooky stuff from you in my inbox now and then.
TIM: You’d be the two readers that open it up. There’s some other guy out there too, that opens my email. But anyway, thanks very much, Shourov. Again, thank you so much for today, and for listeners, I’ll see you next time. Thanks, Shourov.
SHOUROV: Thanks, Tim.